At Arden, you choose your own adventure. And it's possible to get your choices very right, or woefully wrong.
The new restaurant and wine bar in the heart of the Pearl District comes from chef Sara Hauman and Thelonious Wines co-owner Kelsey Glasser. Hauman is a vet of buzzy San Francisco eatery Mister Jiu's, which earned a Michelin star back in 2016.
Arden is a decidedly New Portland joint, with pinot vines woven on the walls, a downtempo soundtrack and wooden tables all made from the same Oregon black walnut tree. The plush, 20-seat dining room is all dark-gray birch tones and dried leaves, while the lounge area feels chic and lively, with soaring glass windows on both sides framing the outdoor scene on Northwest 10th Avenue and a look-in wine cellar, respectively.
Dinner here is a flat $62, with wine pairings for each course an additional $34. A few dishes are outright outstanding, including a gorgeous nori tonarelli pasta with fresh uni, paired at dinner with a glass of orange wine from noted Umbrian natural wine producers Paolo Bea. The unctuousness of the pairing is offset by delicately salty bottarga, creamy cured egg yolks and verdant green peas shoots splashed with good vinegar.
Also excellent is the rightly lauded Oregon trout crudo with Pink Lady apples, puffed quinoa, salmon roe and horseradish cream. The dish is a visual and textural delight, with the apples and trout presented together in harmonious symmetry, yielding precisely opposite flavors. That good briny roe flashes another range of umami before exploding into heat from the horseradish. I had the dish paired with a glass of Charles Ellner Champagne ($19), which danced marvelously with the apples, and served as a kind of rolling heat accelerant for the horseradish. This is high-level wine food that makes Arden worth a visit by itself.
Not everything is so extraordinary, though.
The beef tartare is presented over wonton chips, with only blandly sweet dollops of black sesame paste to temper what felt like roughly a pound of salt. And the Oregon black cod felt like five different dish concepts on a single plate. Avocado? Squid-ink black chickpeas? Tentacles? Mint? Creamy slaw? It came paired with a glass of 1999 Schlumberger Pinot Gris from Alsace that did little more than up the oily texture of the fish.
On successive evenings at Arden, I was served one of the worst desserts I've had in Portland, then one of the best. Avoid at all costs the sticky, chewy, overly sweet cacophony of the pavlova. It came festooned with far too much rhubarb compote, which clashed unpleasantly with the paired glass of Pedro Ximenez sherry.
I was ready to write off dessert at Arden as the restaurant's most glaring weak point, until one final pass through the menu yielded an excellent take on fancy frozen yogurt. Chef Hauman brought along a Pacojet frozen food puree machine from her time in San Francisco, and she uses it to deftly to create fresh frozen yogurt on demand. This evening, mine came with a complex, off-boozy strawberry sauvignon blanc ice, coriander granola and a glass of 1995 Sauternes. The lacto-funk of the froyo and the cool, sweet sorbet played beautifully with the sweet wine.
Overall, Arden is sleek, urbane and, at times, extraordinary—an avowedly wine-focused restaurant bringing wine-friendly cuisine to a city both literally and figuratively thirsty for it. Hang around the lounge with a curious expression and Arden's friendly staff may surprise you with a splash or micro-pour of something or other from its generous cellar. Though glass pours are the focus, the bottle list at Arden is deep and quixotic; I especially appreciate its page-length dedication to riesling (listed from dry to sweet), and the restaurant's deep bench of vintage wines from Ridge Vineyards.
What's good here is truly very good, and I'm hopeful that the restaurant's unevenness across my visits amounts to little more than growing pains.